The Minnesota Zoo has never had gorillas, lions, elephants, or rhinos—and still won’t after its first permanent African exhibit opens this month. But does that matter anymore?
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At a recent meet-and-greet held by the Minnesota Zoo, a host of its most monied backers mingled at the Minneapolis Club—far from the animals in Apple Valley. They breakfasted on eggs and sausage amid dark-paneled walls and oil paintings, looking up now and then at a PowerPoint presentation led by the zoo’s director, Lee Ehmke. Eventually, Ehmke paused on a slide depicting lions, gorillas, and the quarterback Brett Favre. What did the animals and the aging athlete have in common? Ehmke explained that they were all large, crowd-pleasing animals, or—in zookeeper’s parlance—“charismatic mega-vertebrates.”
Since the zoo opened, in 1978, it has often been faulted for its distinct lack of such beasts, the sort that visitors to many other zoos take for granted: elephants, rhinoceroses, and yes, lions and gorillas. The Minnesota Zoo has even been accused of not “being complete,” as one legislator put it years ago, raising questions of what a contemporary zoo should look like.
At the meet-and-greet, Ehmke, who has run the zoo since 2000, offered a simple explanation for the big animals’ absence: They’re expensive, both to acquire and to keep, especially African animals and particularly in Minnesota’s climate. The zoo has an annual operating budget of only about $19 million, supplied in part by a fickle state legislature—much less than the budget of other Midwestern zoos, such as those in St. Louis and Milwaukee. “We’re a small-market group,” Ehmke told the zoo’s backers.
But what if the zoo could become more than the sum of its smallish parts? Continuing the slide show, Ehmke flipped to images of the species that will be showcased in “Faces of the African Forest,” opening this month as the zoo’s first permanent exhibit of African animals. Zoo officials say the attraction will be a model, in some ways, for future zoo exhibits and could goose attendance this summer to a record high. The animals include two species of monkeys, fruit bats, rock hyrax (gopher-like creatures), dwarf crocodiles, and Ehmke’s favorite—red river hogs.
From his office at the zoo, Lee Ehmke can see the facility’s empty and crumbling whale tank, a reminder of the zoo’s controversial relationship with big animals. The zoo opened in what many zoo directors now refer to as the “utopian period” of zoo-building, characterized by wide-open, natural spaces—“500 acres and a monorail,” Ehmke muses. It was a reaction to the tile-and-bars aesthetic of many zoo exhibits at the time, such as the Milwaukee Zoo’s quarters for Samson, the largest gorilla ever in captivity: a linoleum cell with a glass wall that he would vigorously assault with all of his 650 pounds. The Minnesota Zoo was conceived as the area’s “new zoo,” in contrast to St. Paul’s Como Zoo, which was smaller and more old-fashioned at the time. It was designed to be, at 485 acres, the most spacious, modern exhibition in the country and planners estimated that the concept would easily draw 2.5 million visitors annually—4 million by the year 2000—and become self-sustaining within a few years.
The execution was less impressive. Only a third of the proposed exhibits were ever built. The contemporary concrete architecture was beyond stark—“Brutalist,” Ehmke calls it—and visitors had difficulty spotting the animals, lounging deep in their pens. Moreover, the creatures were largely unexotic: deer, raccoons, and the like. The zoo’s most charismatic animals, introduced at the opening, were two beluga whales. After they were shipped to the San Diego Zoo in 1987 for health reasons, attendance—which had never topped 1 million visitors—went into a free fall.
In a 1987 report, zoo officials argued that within the “conservation-minded framework” of progressive zoos, “the absence of some of the charismatic mega-vertebrates will no longer be perceived as a deficiency.” Whales, gorillas, rhinos—“All real big, exciting animals,” an official clarified—wouldn’t be missed. But legislators felt duped. When the zoo instead proposed an exhibit of insects, lawmakers declared that the institution had succumbed to “academic elitism.” Governor Rudy Perpich called for the zoo to be spun off as a nonprofit business.
Ehmke can empathize: “No one wants to walk a mile to maybe see a deer,” he says. He was hired a decade ago to add some “wow appeal,” as he put it at the time, to the zoo’s exhibits. Laid-back, with a wry sense of humor, he comes across as more intellectual than idealist. And it was clear he had nothing against charismatic mega-vertebrates: As an exhibit designer at the Bronx Zoo, he’d created its signature attraction, the Congo Gorilla Forest, featuring, well, gorillas—lots of them.
Ehmke is now slowly reversing the Minnesota Zoo’s old layout, creating so-called “immersive exhibits” that draw animals closer to visitors by means of food, heated rocks, and other enticements. For “Russia’s Grizzly Coast,” a $24 million fantasia that opened in 2008, he brought in Amur leopards and grizzly bears, luring them so close to the viewing glass that the bears’ massive heads are occasionally pressed against it. Last year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums declared “Russia’s Grizzly Coast” the best new exhibit in the country, and attendance spiked by 15 percent over 2008 to a record 1.35 million visitors. Attendance has now increased 40 percent in the last five years, and legislators are pleased: Over the last several years, they’ve awarded the zoo some $66 million, including $21 million this year.
But Ehmke can’t afford to stock every new exhibit with bears or equally large equivalents. Nor does he believe it’s always necessary. “It’s not just about having the crowd pleasers,” he says, echoing the zoo’s former insect proponents. Like them, he believes that contemporary zoos should be in the business of conservation as much as entertainment, helping preserve animals in the wild as well as at home. “All great zoos are committed to taking on the bigger conservation issues of the world,” says Ehmke, “and we want to be perceived as a great zoo.” Going a step further, he says, “If you take away the conservation part, I’m not sure there would be a good reason to have zoos.”